Purposeful Education

by I.A. Isherwood

It began with an assignment. I asked my first year seminar to write a short essay on the purpose of college. It was an intentionally vague prompt to see if they could tell me something really interesting about themselves – their ideas and hopes and beliefs on education and purposefulness and life and whatever and yada yada.

As I began marking the essays I got frustrated. Not at my students (in bold for a reason), but at something in our murky social pool that seems to reward cant generalizations and encourage educational self-helpy solipsism. Most of the essays focused on the fact that college is ‘about’ self-discovery. Education played a small, very vague part of this, and the idea of adulthood, foreboding and distant, and the pressures of being a ‘success’ in that so-called future adulthood, played a very big part. There was not that much discussion on what success actually means, or adulthood for that matter, but there were lots of very confident declarative statements about the ‘real world’ and our presumably imaginative world in higher education’s role in preparing young people for, what I assume, some sort of future Babbitry.

I got irritated because I envisioned my role in such a world as being a peripheral curmudgeonly master at some sort of finishing school for adolescence.

And this made me sad.

But then things turned around. How did they, you ask? (If you are still reading after the above predictably pathetic teacher rant about kids these days.) Because yesterday they were wonderful in the classroom: inquisitive, thoughtful, funny, curious, intelligent, beings. I had to remind myself at a few points during our discussion of C.S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy that this was a first year seminar and not a more advanced class. And they were enthusiastic – in a beautiful way – about what they had read and about sharing their ideas. AND it is only our second week. We ran almost ten minutes over our time and I didn’t see one of them look to their watches or begin to squirm in their chairs. I had to actually tell them to pack up their things for a change.

So then I got super empathetic.

Tomorrow, I am going to dedicate some time to talk about their essays. Then I want us to talk a bit about their thoughtfulness in the classroom and ways to put that sophistication and enthusiasm into their writing. It isn’t an easy skill, but it is a necessary one for both making it through college and for life. The idea of ‘purpose’ is something that should make your stomach drop, your face flush, your palms sweat. So maybe tomorrow we’ll have better luck talking about why they’re here and what we’re supposed to be doing. I think that’s a good use of part of our time together.